October 10, 2017 7:12 pm
Updated: October 11, 2017 7:32 am

Mental health services to be provided to northern Sask. by doctors via robots

WATCH ABOVE: In November of 2016 hundreds gathered in mourning to honour six girls from northern Saskatchewan who had taken their lives in a span of four weeks. Now, new technology donated to the Jim Pattison Children's Hospital Foundation will be deployed to communities in need to help improve access to mental health support.

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Children in northern Saskatchewan will soon have easier access to doctors, namely psychiatrists, to address what has been called a mental health crisis.

Two Remote Presence Technology (RPT) units have been purchased with a $500,000 donation from RBC to Jim Pattison Children’s Hospital Foundation.

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The RPTs will be deployed in the coming months to communities with the greatest need.

Tuesday marks World Mental Health Day.

“When somebody is being cut down after trying to hang themselves and coming into the emergency department,” Dr. Veronica McKinney said, “it’s a huge crisis that we have.”

McKinney is the director of Northern Medical Services and hopes these new “robots” will bridge the gap to the north, and improve access to health care.

Doctors in Saskatoon and Regina will be able to maneuver the robot through the halls of health care centres and visually assess patients from afar.

“These systems have potential to do examinations, ultrasound, stethoscope, they can look at, for example, the oxygen in the blood,” explained Dr. Ivar Mendez, who helped bring the first robots to Saskatchewan through a pilot project in 2013.

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Those RPTs are still in use in the province’s north. The two new RPTs will be manned by psychiatrists, specifically addressing mental health issues.

With interactive technology, the RPTs are able to turn toward whoever is speaking, and the face of the doctor behind the machine is clearly visible to the patient.

“Our experience has been that there’s comfort with it,” Dr. Tanya Holt said when asked about the RPTs being impersonal.

“Children like it. I have a photo of one of the kids in our study that we followed up several times, in fact hugging the robot.”

According to Holt, the alternative is missing the opportunity to speak to a specialist or waiting days to see one in Saskatoon or Regina after a lengthy commute.

“We need to be innovative in the way we overcome the barriers of distance and time,” Holt said.

According to Mendez, Saskatchewan is paving the way with RPTs and is the first province to use them specifically to address mental health issues in northern communities.

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